Gatsby Made Great

I’ve been trying to figure out why the ending of the recent Gatsby film felt so flat to me, and I think it’s because it lacks the animating pathos of the final confrontation of origin stories that drove the plot along. This surprised me, as the film had done an excellent job throughout of juggling these competing narratives: the partygoers’ outlandish and vaguely malicious gossip, Tom Buchanan’s smug denunciation of “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” and Gatsby’s own fantasy of radical self-creation.

Dispelling the revelers’ rumors, Nick Carraway tells his readers in one of the novel’s asides, “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God–a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that–and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”[1] It’s one of the great ironies of the book that Gatsby’s narrative should outstrip all competitors in terms of completeness and bombast (thinking of Gatsby as a nephew or cousin of the Kaiser titillates the revelers; to think of him as the second coming of Christ could only offend or bore them). Those lines don’t appear on-screen like so many others do (perhaps they would have offended or bored audiences) but the Luhrmann team nonetheless suffuses the film with the sense of Gatsby’s perceived celestial birthright. In the film’s version of Nick’s explanatory interlude, little Jimmy Gatz stands on his bed inside his parents’ shack and stares at the Milky Way above as if acknowledging his true home. After rescuing the wayward Dan Cody, the teenage Gatz looks up to the yacht’s mast to find the storm clouds parting and a blue sky winking in approval. The starry firmament unifies Gatsby’s life, serving as the backdrop of scenes of longing (of young Jimmy in North Dakota; of adult Jay in West Egg, straining toward the Buchanan house across the Sound) and of recollection (of Daisy tearing Gatsby’s letter on her wedding day; of Gatsby’s erotic possession of Daisy in Louisville).[2]

Nick dispels the guests’ rumors with Gatsby’s auto-mythology at the novel’s center, and that mythology is itself progressively undone at the novel’s conclusion. In his attempts to rustle up mourners, Nick learns that Meyer Wolfsheim not only started him in business but also “made him.”[3] The arrival of Henry Gatz from Minnesota proves that, ultimately and irrevocably, Gatsby didn’t emerge from his own mind or from the heavens. The blunt collision of the romantic wish of Gatsby and the material reality of Gatz short-circuits the novel’s prevailing irony and so concludes it pathetically. To its detriment, none of this appears in the film. Without the counterweight of his personal history, Luhrmann’s Gatsby lies in his bloom-strewn bier as Gatsby, self-conjured, self-mesmered, and, at least metaphorically, self-immolated, and it makes sense that a man who enters the world alone should leave it in kind.

At some level Luhrmann must have recognized the incompleteness of this scene, as he substitutes anger for pathos in the form of Nick’s outburst on Gatsby’s staircase. But Tobey Maguire’s expression belies the intended gravity of the moment. In exhorting the gossipmongers to “get the hell out,” Nick’s face bears the slightly cartoonish wide eyes and open mouth that worked well for Maguire in the Spiderman films. It lacks the outrage that overwhelms DiCaprio’s in the pressure-cooker suite at the Plaza, the film’s best scene and, not coincidentally, the scene in which Tom drills to the bedrock of Gatsby’s identity.

Without the strong presence of the conflict between real and imagined pasts, the film searches in vain for a successful conclusion. Maguire, soggy, bedraggled, and disillusioned, wanders New York City as though looking for meaning in it all. We then hear him recite the novel’s last line, “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” the power of which is undercut by the limited sense of “past” operating at this point in the film. If that final line misses the full context that makes it justly famous, it is no matter, for its very fame is reason enough to include it. The film seems to know this for it all but says so in its final scene, when Nick amends the title of his manuscript, demonstrating to us all that a Gatsby can at least have greatness thrust upon it.

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner, 2004), 98.

[2] I’m surprised that it didn’t occur to Luhrmann to show a meteorite streaking as Gatsby takes his final plunge into his pool. If that or something like it had appeared it would have been laughable, but on the other hand, it would also have been the most truly excessive moment in a film packed with well-contained extravagances (The film’s pervasive paradoxical sense of conservative excess supports Wesley Morris’s claim that its drug of choice would be “diet coke.” (Wesley Morris, “@TheGreatGatsby!” Grantland 9 May 2013.

[3] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 171.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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